According to legend, a Roman merchant of the late 15th century who traded on the island of Crete stole a miraculous icon from one of the churches there and brought it back to his home.
On his deathbed, the merchant gave the icon to a friend and asked him to donate it to a local church. However, the friend’s wife fell in love with the icon and insisted on keeping it in their home. Subsequently, the friend also died without having given the icon to a church.
At a later date, the woman’s 6-year-old daughter had a vision. The Blessed Mother told her to tell her mother and grandmother that she wanted the icon placed within a church called St. Matthew’s on the street between the Basilica of Mary Major and the Basilica of John Lateran.
The mother wavered. Her daughter became ill and repeated the message. When the icon was placed in St. Matthew’s on March 27, 1499, the daughter recovered her health. At St. Matthew’s, the icon would be venerated for the following 300 years.
Today the icon — Our Lady of Perpetual Help — is enshrined in the neo-Gothic Church of St. Alphonsus on the Esquiline in Rome, named for St. Alphonsus Maria Liguori (1696-1787), founder of the Redemptorist Order. But the church is popularly known by the many pilgrims who flock to it as the Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
June 27 is the feast day of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.
There was a time when the icon was missing, its location forgotten. From 1739 to 1798, St. Matthew’s and an adjacent monastery were run by Irish Augustinians who had been exiled from Ireland. However, when Napoleon and his army took over Rome, the Augustinians removed the icon to another of their churches: Santa Maria on the Via della Conciliazione in front of St. Peter’s Basilica. St. Matthew’s church and monastery were subsequently destroyed during the war.
When the Redemptorists came to Rome in January 1855, they purchased the land on which the original St. Matthew’s had stood. In 1869, they built the Church of St. Alphonsus on the Esquiline. The church is adjacent to the general house of the Redemptorist fathers, where the father general of the order and his consultants live.
A Jesuit Helps
On Feb. 7, 1863, a famous Jesuit, Father Francesco Blosi, was preaching at the Church of the Gesù and made an appeal. Father Blosi said if anyone knew the whereabouts of the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, it should be returned, restored and made available for public devotion. Father Blosi pointed out that the icon had been in the former St. Matthew’s on Via Merulana and had been called the Virgin of St. Matthew and the Virgin of Perpetual Help.
During the same time period, the chronicler of the Redemptorists discovered written references to St. Matthew’s, which had housed an icon of the Mother of God known for “great veneration and fame for its miracles.”
Listening to Father Blosi’s appeal was Father Michael Marchi, a Redemptorist who had been an altar boy at the Church of Santa Maria near the Vatican. He recalled that the icon had been moved to that church by the Augustinians when Napoleon arrived on the scene. The location of the icon had also been pointed out to him by an Augustinian brother.
When the icon was rediscovered in 1865, Pope Pius IX gave it to the Redemptorists, who had requested the icon so that it could once again be located in a church between St. Mary Major and St. John Lateran. On June 23, 1867, the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help was crowned by the dean of the Vatican chapter, officially recognizing that the Marian icon had been rescued from oblivion.
Pius also gave the Redemptorists a directive to spread devotion throughout the world to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. However, the Redemptorists are more inclined to say that it was Our Lady who took the Redemptorists around the world in order to spread the devotion.
In Rome, pictures that are considered to be miraculous are usually crowned, and on the icon both the Blessed Mother and the Child Jesus were crowned at some point after the icon arrived in Rome. In addition, the Redemptorists added a precious stone to the neckband of Our Lady. However, in 1990, the Vatican Museum and the University of Rome undertook a general restoration of the icon and removed both the crowns and jewel in order to return the icon to its original appearance.
The icon, which is about 21 inches by 16 inches, has a prominent place above the tabernacle. In 1995, the icon, which is painted on willow wood, underwent another restoration and was re-exposed in a simple setting of bronze and gold. It has been placed in a controlled atmosphere, and there are metal supports to protect the wood from bending.
The icon has features that are particular to icons made in Crete, such as the halo around Our Lady’s head. It is one of a family of about 20 icons called the Virgin of the Passion, most of them from Crete.
There are two focal points to the icon. One is the eyes of Our Lady, which seem to follow the viewer; the other is the hands of the Christ Child grasping his Mother’s hand. The usual explanation given for the icon is that Christ is shown his forthcoming passion by the two archangels, who have in their hands the instruments of Our Lord’s passion. Frightened by a view of his future passion, the child leaps into the lap of his mother, and, in the process, one of his slippers falls off. One foot is turned up, symbolic of Christ’s humanity.
A more biblical explanation for the slipper falling off is the Old Testament custom of throwing a sandal onto a field to reclaim property. Because humanity, fallen as a result of original sin, needed to be brought back to God, the fallen slipper is a symbol of redemption.
In the church, behind the icon, is a triptych mosaic of three relatively large figures of the Holy Family. The Blessed Mother is pictured on one side. On the other side St. Joseph is pictured adoring the Christ Child. The painting is unique because Christ is painted after the resurrection, with his bodily wounds evident.
Many groups arrive with their own priests who say Mass at the shrine. A perpetual novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help takes place in English Thursday afternoons at 5 p.m. This draws a number of Filipinos who work in Rome because the devotion is popular in the Philippines. Following the novena, 100 to 200 Filipinos enjoy a social meeting in an adjacent hall.
Poles in Rome also flock here for devotion to the icon on Sunday mornings, which is preceded by 9:30 a.m. Mass in Polish.
The Choir of St. Alphonsus, including laypeople and Redemptorists, sings at the Sunday Masses and on special feast days. Both the Polish and the Filipinos have their own choirs.
Joseph Albino writes
from Syracuse, New York.
The Church of St. Alphonsus on the Esquiline
Santuario Del Perpetuo Soccorso
Via Merulana 31
00185 Rome, Italy
Planning Your Visit:
The regular weekend Masses are in Italian on Saturdays and Sundays at 7, 8:30 and 11:15 a.m., plus 6:30 in the evening. On Sundays, there is an abbreviated form of the novena at 4 p.m. followed by Mass in English. Weekday Masses in Italian are at 7 and 9 a.m. and 6:30 p.m.
There is a special novena for Aug. 1, which is the feast day of St. Alphonsus Liguori. There is also a novena for the feast of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Also, on the Sunday closest to the June 27 feast, a procession is held, with the Rosary recited, from Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church to the Basilica of St. Mary Major and back again.
Getting There: The church is close to the main railway station, Stazione Termini. One can walk from the station on Via Gioberti to the Basilica of St. Mary Major, and then on to the church. Because of its closeness to the train station, it is considered a “city center church,” with visitors coming from all over the world.